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John Jenkins

Jazz Roots/Jazz History Taylor, Billy. Jazz Piano: A Jazz History. Dubuque, Iowa: William C. Brown Publishers, 1983. Jazz: “America’s Classical Music” THE HISTORY AND DEVELOPMENT OF JAZZ PIANO Jazz is an American way of playing music. It is also a repertory which formalizes its various stages of development into classical styles which musically articulate authentic American feelings and thoughts. The written literature of jazz has continually evolved out of informal improvisations and has crystallized the musical elements and devices which characterize each of these classical styles. The crystallization of these elements and devices has been aided by piano rolls, phonograph records, radio broadcasts, tapes, and other recording devices, both aural and visual. Jazz, a unique American phenomenon, is America’s classical music. As a musical language, it has developed steadily from a single expression of the consciousness of black people to a national music which expresses Americana to Americans as well as to people from other countries. As a classical music with its own standards of form, complexity, literacy, and excellence, jazz has been a major influence on the music of the world for more than eighty years. Although jazz has influenced other styles of music and, in turn, has been influenced by them, it has its own undeniable identity firmly rooted in the African musical tradition. Jazz emerged from the need of black Americans to express themselves in musical terms. This need for self-expression stemmed directly from the African musical heritage. In African societies music was essential in cementing together a culture, perpetuating cultural continuance, enforcing the moral and spiritual order, allowing one to express oneself, and helping an individual adjust to group norms. As a result, Africans brought with them to this country the tradition of having music to accompany and define all the activities of life. There was music for working, for playing, for waking up, for washing, for hunting, for reaping, for festivals and their preparation, and for important events such as births, initiation rites, marriages, deaths, wars, and victories. Music, for Africans, had many purposes; its rhythms, melodies, and harmonies were an integral part of whatever they did. As such, jazz was derived from traditions and aesthetics which were non- European in origin and concept. Even though jazz has developed its own traditions and parameters as indigenous American music, its roots and value system are African. Its basic rhythmic approaches were derived from the multi-rhythmic traditions found throughout the African continent. In the African tradition there were no onlookers; everyone was a participant in creating rhythm and responding to it. The adherence to African rhythmic practices made it easier for people to participate on their own level. They could dance, sing, clap their hands, stomp their feet, play an instrument, or combine these with other rhythmic methods of self-expression such as shaking or rattling makeshift instruments. Rhythm was fundamental in the African musical tradition and has remained so in jazz. Another prominent characteristic of jazz is its improvisatory aspect, an extension of the time-honored traditions of African Griots (oral historians), bards, and minstrels who adapted their offerings to the dynamics of each occasion. The art of improvisation has played an important role in the development of jazz. Because of this, there are as many approaches to creating and performing the music as there are people creating and performing it. However, the evolution of jazz is often based on the need for personal expression: does it enable me to say what I want to say? The techniques are subservient to the message of the musicians, and the jazz musician always does have a message to communicate. When Africans came to this country as slaves, they brought their artistic traditions with them, their memories, and their experiences in expressing themselves through well- established musical techniques which accompanied and defined all the occurrences in their lives. However, Africans were not the only people who brought their musical heritage with them to this country. When English, Scotch, Irish, and German emigrants came, they brought with them the songs, customs, and attitudes of the various places of their origins. They even brought some of their musical instruments and other artifacts with them. They were transplanted people, free to express themselves in ways which were traditional to them, and, thus, they were able to sustain and maintain their musical heritage without external need to change. Because transplanted Africans did not have the same freedom to maintain their cultural identity, their musical traditions had to change. As they endured slavery, they were obliged to reshape work songs, leisure songs, religious music, and other types of music found in their heritage. They even had to create new forms of musical expression when some of the old ones no longer satisfied their needs or conditions. Out of the changing cultural necessities emerged a secular music which incorporated the traditional elements necessary to sustain Africans as they adapted to a new land and faced the conditions of slavery. They had to learn a new language and also learn to verbally express themselves in ways that did not obviously exclude their captors. Because of this, their music transcended their needs and reached out toward others, including the colonial slave owners. Black American music, from the very beginning of its development in this country, incorporated elements from other musical traditions, yet it has retained its own identity for the past three hundred seventy-some years. Because jazz has utilized and restructured materials from many other musical traditions, there is a style of jazz that sounds like European classical music, a style of jazz that sounds like country and western music, a style of jazz that sounds like Latin American music, and styles that sound like various other kinds of music heard in this country and elsewhere in the world. Afro-Americans, in producing music which expressed themselves, not only developed a new musical vocabulary but created a classical music, an American music which articulated authentic American feelings and thoughts which eventually came to transcend ethnic boundaries. This classical music defines the national character and the national culture and serves, in a sense, as a musical mirror reflecting who and what Americans were in their own view at different points in their development. No matter when or where it is composed or performed, from early colonial times
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